WASHINGTON, March 2 (UPI) -- Is al-Qaida setting up a base in the Palestinian territories? Are Osama bin Laden's mujahedeen positioning themselves within easy striking distance of Israel? Both Israeli and Palestinian officials believe that to be the case. However Hamas, who recently won the elections and will form the next Cabinet, denies the presence of any al-Qaida operatives in the PA.
Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, who later served as an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told United Press International that there is "tremendous misunderstanding of Hamas in the West. Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood."
On the Palestinian side, the London-based al-Hayat newspaper quoted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as saying there were indications that an al-Qaida network was emerging in the Palestinian territories.
Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, told the Saudi-financed paper he was "very worried over intelligence information that the organization was making a presence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip." Abbas cautioned that if al-Qaida operatives managed to infiltrate the Palestinian territories without any control, "the result will destroy the whole region."
The Palestinian president was reluctant to talk about specific threats, saying it was a "sensitive issue and I want to be accurate. We have indications of al-Qaida presence in Gaza and the West Bank based on intelligence and security information."
Abbas said the situation was a "very dangerous matter."
But Usama Hamdan, a spokesman for Hamas in Beirut told UPI that both sides were mistaken in their assessment of the situation. Hamdan said it is in Israel's interest to promote the rumor as it gives them an out as far as political agreements and it allows them to ignore agreements and to put the pressure back on the Palestinians.
As for Abbas, the Hamas spokesman believes he is under pressure from the Europeans to tow the line.
"The Palestinian people know much about resistance," Hamdan told UPI speaking on the phone. "While the Palestinians may need financial help and political support, we don't need anyone to teach us about resistance," Hamdan said.
"There is no need for al-Qaida in the Palestinian territories and there is no proof they are here," Hamdan said. "But in any case," he pointed out, "Hamas is not yet running the government."
But Gold believes the two groups Hamas and al-Qaida -- have the same ideology and end-vision.
"Hamas and al-Qaida drink from the same ideological fountain. Al-Qaida in the Palestinian territories would be a disaster for both Israel and Jordan. The Europeans and the Russians have not fully appreciated the dangers of Hamas."
Hamdan, the Hamas spokesman, rebuffs the accusations, saying that in any case, there is no proof of an al-Qaida presence in the Palestinian territories.
According to the Jerusalem Post, however, a senior Palestinian source revealed on Thursday that Palestinian security forces located several operatives spreading al-Qaida ideology. "The troops arrested one such extremist in Gaza," it reported.
Still, Hamdan insists there is no proof. But earlier in the day, President Abbas told the Arab daily al-Hayat that he had proof that al-Qaida cells have infiltrated, and are operating in the West Bank and Gaza. "I am very concerned about this," said Abbas.
"If they succeeded in infiltrating in such a way, and if no one watches over them, the result could be disastrous for the entire region. The last piece of information I received on the subject was three days ago, but we still have not been able to lay our hands on the operatives," he said.
Gold, too, remains worried: "This is the first time in the history of the Muslim Brotherhood that the movement have taken over a government," said Gold.
It is useful to compare Hamas today to the Palestine Liberation Organization. In 1993, when the PLO lost their backing form the Soviet Union and from the Syrians, they had nowhere to go but to crawl to the West for help and to accept the Oslo peace accords.
In contrast, today Hamas is supported by Iran and the Muslim community at large. Citizens in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other oil-rich Gulf states are collecting money to send to Hamas.
Israel insists money is all that is coming into the Palestinian territories.
Commenting on the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, the terminal which U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice played a major role in getting the Israelis to accept its re-opening: "Israel is not satisfied with the way in which the terminal functions," the Israeli defense ministry said in a statement provided to The Washington Times. "We know of individuals on our black list who succeeded in getting through, including members of al-Qaida.
"The Palestinians are not living up to their obligations. They are not supervising the crossing point and not relaying data which enables effective identification of individuals going through the terminal. The developments there are very distressing."
Gold agrees: "I can envision a Hamas becoming a center of militancy in the area."
Hamas, meanwhile, is saying to whoever will listen to give them the benefit of the doubt. As Hamdan said, "we have not yet formed a government."
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